How My Baptist Upbringing Influenced My Conversion (Part III)
This post is the third of a series of posts with my father, Dr. Terry Ellis, reflecting on the influence of my upbringing as a Baptist minister’s daughter on my conversion to Catholicism as an adult. In the last post, we considered some of the differences in sacramental theology between Catholics and Baptists. Although fundamentally different, the sacramental understanding of various ordinances in the Baptist Church made my transition to understanding the Catholic sacraments easier. This week, Dad and I reflect on some of the specific Baptist teachings and practices that have enriched my spiritual life as a Catholic.
Terry: Let’s shift gears and let me pose a question for you. I love the way you refer to your Baptist upbringing as forming some important foundations upon which your Catholic faith has flourished. What other teachings or practices as a young Baptist are enriching your theology and practice of the faith as a Catholic?
Lauren: When I think about my childhood as a practicing Baptist, there are several things that stand out to me that Baptists tend to do really well. Southern Baptists’ deep love and respect for Scripture, the rich hymn tradition, and the emphasis on a personal relationship with Jesus. Of course, the Catholic Church also does each of these things very well, but because these were such a formative part of my faith as a child in the Baptist tradition, they came back almost as “muscle memory” when I came into the Catholic Church as an adult.
Baptists pride themselves on their love and knowledge of scripture. I remember being encouraged to memorize Bible verses from a very young age – in fact we would do “Bible drills” where we would compete to see who could look up a verse the fastest or recite the most verses. I grew up consistently encouraged to read my Bible every day and to bring it with me to Church every Sunday.
In contrast, it is somewhat of a running joke in Protestant circles (and Catholics themselves will repeat it!) that “Catholics don’t know their Bibles.” I remember hearing someone remark once that Catholics don’t even bother to bring their Bibles to Church on Sundays as proof that Catholics elevate Tradition over Scripture.
Once I became Catholic, of course, I realized nothing could be further from the truth. Catholics do know their Bibles, and quite well. Nearly every verse of the Bible is proclaimed during Mass over a three-year sequence, so Catholics (the ones who attend Mass regularly, anyway!) are very familiar with all parts of the Scripture. In fact, one of the things I love now as a Catholic is experiencing Scripture through the liturgical cycle.
Baptists also have a beautiful and rich hymn tradition, as I mentioned. I remember my spirit soaring as a child when the whole congregation joined together to sing God’s praises through the beautiful works composed by Fanny Crosby or John Rippon, and many of those old hymns still come to my lips first when I am at a loss for words in prayer or even mindlessly going through my daily activities. Since becoming Catholic, I have been able to add the beautiful and ancient hymns written by St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Hildegard of Bingen, St. Basil, and so many others over the millennia.
Finally, the Baptist “mantra” of speaking of “Jesus Christ as personal Lord and Savior” comes to mind. While the phrase may seem pat from overuse at first blush, it’s a vitally important part of the Christian tradition. There is truly nothing more personal than the indwelling of the Trinity in the souls of believers, and the Catholic doctrine of the Real Presence reaffirms in a beautiful way that level of intimacy God desires to share with us. Because I thought of Jesus in such a personal way as a child, I was quite comfortable with what I’ll call “unstructured” prayer – simply talking to Jesus as I would a friend sitting in the chair next to me. As a Catholic, I am now tapping into the Church’s rich mystical theology and contemplative prayer traditions that have deepened this familiar way of speaking with God that I learned when I was younger.
As you mentioned in our last post, however, by so strongly emphasizing the personal quality of God, Baptists occasionally run the risk of “lounging on the altar.” Catholics run the risk of the opposite problem, where God’s transcendental “otherness” is focused on to the detriment of His desire to know deeply and personally each of us. I think what I learned as a young Baptist and what I learned as an adult Catholic has helped me find a good balance between the two.
Terry: I believe you forgot to mention the fabulous preaching you heard me do from the pulpit as a youngster, but I’ll let that lie for now. We both know that there are segments of Baptists and Catholics that harbor deep suspicions about one another, and perhaps that is part of the reason you are so frequently asked how your parents reacted when your fellow Catholics find out you were raised Southern Baptist. When you encounter surprise from some members of your Catholic family about your Baptist roots, how do you respond to them?
Lauren: Remind me to send you the Litany of Humility again.
All jokes aside, this deep suspicion you mention was something I was really surprised to encounter when I began my conversion process. I simply had never thought of Catholics as anything other than fellow Christians who did things a bit differently, and it certainly never occurred to me that there are those within the Catholic Church who similarly question whether Protestants are true Christians! These extremists are a minority on both sides, however, and, from the Catholic perspective at least, do not represent the actual teachings of the Church on this matter.
Most of the surprise or suspicion I encounter arises from well-meaning Catholics mistakenly thinking that these relatively few extremists represent a majority of those who belong to evangelical Protestant denominations. There are at least 200 major Protestant denominations in the United States alone, so it’s very hard to pick any one Protestant position and attribute it to Protestants as a whole.
Even within a single denomination, such as the Southern Baptists, you’ll find a wide range of beliefs. It is one of the downsides, I think, to the lack of hierarchical structure that Baptists pride themselves on. Moreover, even if you do have a clear denominational teaching on an issue, there is no guarantee that the church members accurately understand the teaching or accept it. You don’t have to look very far within any denominational circle, Catholics included, to find examples of congregants with a warped understanding of what their particular church actually teaches.
Terry: While I hope we were supportive and understanding about your conversion to the Catholic Church, were there any issues in your conversion that gave you pause about telling us? Or fears over how this would affect your family?
Lauren: Certainly! After uncovering this existence of these types of suspicions on both sides of the aisle, it was particularly important to me to figure out what the Catholic Church actually teaches about Protestant Christians. I have personally seen and experienced the work of the Holy Spirit in my Protestant friends and family members, individuals from all denominational stripes, so it was important to me to nail down what the Catholic Church taught about whether my family members could be “saved,” as they say in Protestant circles (CCC nos. 811-870 are helpful for those interested in the Church’s teaching on this).
I don’t think I ever worried much about how you and Mom would react, although I knew you would both have some questions about particular doctrines. The areas I most feared over how my conversion would affect my family were within my marriage. Catholic moral teachings, particularly those on contraception and the raising of children, and even end-of life issues that arise when discussing wills and medical powers of attorney, can be difficult topics for couples who were married prior to one spouse’s conversion.
Aaron was raised United Methodist, and we were married in the Methodist Church and attended the Methodist Church while we were dating, engaged, and during the first year or so of our marriage. He didn’t have the benefit of knowing what he was “getting into” before we were married the same way Protestants who marry already-practicing Catholics do, so there was definitely an adjustment period after I converted. My conversion spurred Aaron to do his own research, however, and as you and many of my readers know, he, too, ended up converting to Catholicism in June 2020!
This post is part of a series of posts entitled "How my Baptist Upbringing Influenced my Conversion." To make sure you don’t miss Part IV, hit the subscribe button, below!